The Four Pillars of Wine for Beginners

Discussion in 'Pairing Food and Wine' started by virgil, Feb 16, 2016.

  1. virgil

    virgil

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    If you are a beginner in the wine world, there are four pillars that you should spend time getting to know.  They are Tannin, Alcohol, Acidity and Body.  Like "Y is sometimes a vowel, "Vintage" is often the 5th pillar.

    Here's a quick course in the major wine pillars for all the beginners.

    Cabs and Zin are good wines for beginners to start out with.  After all, Cabernet is the most popular wine in the world.  I like to think of it as the "Budweiser" of wines.  But, like beer, no one would ever suggest a Guinness to someone who has never tasted beer before, right?  Wine is no different.  That is why Cabs and Zins are good platform from which to take the plunge, so to speak. 

    Cabernet is a good wine for beginners because it has good tannins and allows the beginner to experience those tannins without busting the wallet.  Most importantly, however, it allows the beginner to decide if they like wine with lots of tannin.  Tannin is what gives wine that slightly dry sensation.  However, tannin is often confused with alcohol which is what actually determines a wine's dryness.  Tannin is what gives wine its astringency and that touch of bitterness.  Tannin comes from grape skins and stalks.  Tannin is to wine as hops is to beer.  Some folks simply do not like beer with a lot of hops.  The same is true for wine drinkers and tannin.  For this reason, Cabernet is a good wine to familiarize the beginner with tannin to decide if high tannin wine is something they like. 

    Zinfandel is another great wine for beginners because its a great wine to learn how alcohol effects the taste of wine.  Zin typically has a high alcohol content because it is made from fruit that is very ripe.  This is where the term "jammy" comes from.  NOTE: In the wine world, using the term "jammy" is like being that guy in the music store who insists on playing Stairway to Heaven.  NO STAIRWAY!   The high alcohol content gives the wine its "big" characteristics.  The higher alcohol content is what makes California Cabs and Zin seem "bigger" than their French counterparts.  Alcohol also determines a wine's dryness.  The higher the alcohol, the dryer the wine.

    Another great "cornerstone" wine is Pinot Noir.  It teaches beginners what acidity is all about. It has low tannins and that allows for the acidity to stand out.  Acidity is that characteristic that makes you want to pucker like the way lemons do (just not as unpleasant).  But Pinots are something special.  Pinot grapes are notoriously temperamental and have thin skins (hence, the low tannins) which means they bruise easily.  They are more reactive to temperature and climate conditions than any other grape so consistency is always elusive.  But, Pinot Noir comes together in the glass like no other wine on Earth.  It is truly sunlight held together by water.  I usually recommend a beginner's first good wine to be a Pinot Noir. 

    As for learning what "body" is in the wine world, Syrah is the way to go.  Syrahs are usually smooth and rich which is where their pronounced "body" characteristics live and breathe.  The same is true for Malbec, which is in the same category as Syrah.  These are the wines that turn your teeth purple.  Beginners should make a note of this wine because Syrah pairs nicely with lamb and many cheeses.  Once a few good Syrahs have been tasted, the next step in the category is French Rhone blends or a Malbec.  Keep that in mind for the next wine party. 

    Once you are familiar with these four characteristics, then its time to start experimenting with different wines that have different combinations of these characteristics.  As the beginner becomes more familiar with the subtleties of these characteristics, their preferences will start to rapidly develop.  More importantly, the beginner will understand that every rule has an exception in the wine world.  For instance, one general rule is "you get what you pay for."  So, under this rule, the $65 bottle should be better than the $14 bottle.  Generally, yes.  But, I have had $14 bottles of wine that were better than the same wine from a different maker that costs 4 and 5 times the price.  Then again, I have had both $14 and $65 bottles of wine that were nightmares. 

    This is where knowing your vintages comes in handy.  A cheaper wine from a better vintage is often better than a more expensive wine of the same varietal from an inferior vintage.  Knowing your vintages can save you lots of money (which, incidentally, is where my expertise comes into play).  Sure, anyone can find the $700 Bordeaux.  Just look for the big price tag.  But, why is it $700?  Often, the hefty tag is due to the reputation of the winery or wine maker.  But, even Jordan missed a few game winning 3 pointers.  The same principle applies in wine.  Wine makers may have god like powers, but, those powers do not extend to influencing the climate and soil conditions that effect grape growth and flavor.  Knowing what regions had good and bad years is very important.  These figures do not have to be memorized.  They are readily available with a simple google search.  But, being familiar with the good vintages and their respective regions can make even a beginner shine like a pro when it comes to picking a bottle for the dinner party from that huge wine list.   

    Another good tip is when you order the wine, examine the cork.  You can be a show off and smell the cork if you like.  But, in reality, the reason for checking the cork is to make sure the end is stained with wine and the cork is soft and supple.  A dry, brittle cork is bad news. A cork end stained with wine means the wine was stored properly on its side and not standing up.  A supple cork means the wine was bottled properly and the likelihood that air got to the wine while being stored is practically nil. 

    If you are the one that ordered the wine, the server will pour a modest mouthful in the glass.  Restaurants are usually dark so, checking the color is often difficult.  Swish the wine around in the glass and get your nose right in there and give it a good sniff.  Taste the wine immediately after giving it a good sniff and let it set in the mouth for a second or two before swallowing.  If you like it, give a nod and the server will pour for the other guests and come back to you last. 

    Don't  be that guy who sits there and smells the cork, holds the wine up to the light trying to check the color in a dimly lit restaurant and for the love of god, do not suck air with wine in your mouth or swish it around like mouthwash.  Unless you are master somm who is being paid to rate a wine etc., you are pretty much signaling to the entire restaurant that you are complete tool (not to mention probably embarrassing your guests).   If you're in a top end restaurant, chances are very good the server knows more about that wine and wine in general than you do.  Its very tempting to go over board and show off a little when tasting a wine.  Someday, when I retire, Im going to publish a book that contains nothing but what servers say in the BOH about the guests they just opened a bottle for.  I'm pretty sure it will be a #1 best seller. 

    If you are a beginner, these tips can help you along your way to getting to know wine and more importantly,  have fun with it.   After all, wine was given to us by the gods so we could add some fun to our drab, mortal lives, right?

    Enjoy!
     
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2016
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  2. phatch

    phatch Moderator Staff Member

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    I'm not a drinker so you can take me to task for any mistakes. 

    I'm confused that you relate dryness to alcohol content. To the degree that alcohol increases as the yeast consumes the grape sugar, then yes, dryness (low residual sugar) and alcohol content are related. 

    But grapes are not all equal in sugar (brix). So a wine from a lower sugar grape can have lower alcohol total and lower residual sugar. But by your explanation would not be as dry. 

    Winemakers play other games with the sugar in a wine, sometimes adding extra sugar to create higher total alcohol or adding unfermented must later in sussreserve. 

    So to me, judging dryness by residual sugar seems clearer than by alcohol content. Indeed sweet dessert wines can have high alcohol but would not be considered dry such as Ice Wine. 
     
  3. virgil

    virgil

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    Hi Phatch. 

    That is a great question that is a tremendous point of confusion.  Thanks for asking. 

    In technical terms, you correct.  The dryness of the wine is essentially the level of residual sugars left over after the fermentation process has stopped.  However, understanding the term "sugars" in the context of fermentation is essential to not getting it confused. Having said that, your method for determining a wine's dryness is 100% correct and spot on.  I do not mean to imply that you are wrong in any way.  However, over the years, when it comes to explaining this principle to beginners, I almost always lose them to confusion.  So, I have learned to simply explain it to them by simply stating that higher alcohol typically means a dryer wine.  

    However, when someone who has a good understanding of wine, as you apparently do, I give them the following as an explanation.   

    When the grapes grow, they accumulate sucrose, which is a byproduct of the photosynthetic process.  As the grape ripens, the accumulated sucrose is split into fructose and glucose. Depending on the grape varietal, up to 25% of the grape can consist of sugars. However, there are many types of sugars within the grape and not all of them are fermentable.  These residual sugars that are not fermentable, other than the sucrose and fructose, will determine the dryness of the wine.  When we think of "sugar", we think "sweet."  However, the sweetness levels of different sugars varies depending on the type of sugar.  The shorthand is alcohol and residual sugar levels share an inverse relationship.  Describing one is essentially describing the other.  That is precisely why your method is 100% correct as is mine. 

    Yeast in wine making struggle to naturally produce an ABV above 13% - 14%.  Wine that has an alcohol content above 14%, like dessert wines, are almost certainly helped along during fermentation by the addition of extra added sugar.  This explains how you can have a sweet dessert wine that does not seem dry yet, has a high alcohol content.  The "sweetness" is actually not the grape's natural sweetness (or its natural residual sugars), but, rather, the added sugar, in most cases a syrup.  

    Save for dessert wines, the fermentation process is either allowed to cease on its own naturally or it is deliberately stopped by the wine maker at some point along the way depending on his/her preferences and the type of wine that is being made.  In many countries such as France and Italy, in order to receive the state's endorsement i.e. Italy's DOC or DOCG, the wine maker must adhere to such criteria such as strict ABV levels depending on the wine that is being made. 

    However, for the sake of the beginners, they would be safe in assuming a higher alcohol content wine is on the dryer end of the spectrum.  A great point in fact is a 14+% ABV Pinot Noir.  Pinot is categorized as a "semi sweet" red due to its inherent "sweetness," which means there are residual sugars left over after fermentation.   However, Pinots with alcohol at or above 14% can also have a "dry" characteristic caused precisely by the level of alcohol and lower residual sugars and, yet,  are still categorized as "semi sweet" wines.

    Like I said, in the world of wine, there are always exceptions to the rules.  Dessert wines can be one of those exceptions to the alcohol vs. dry rule. 

    I hope I have answered your question.  If you need anything else, please let me know. 

    -V
     
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2016
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  4. blackfish

    blackfish

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    Great introduction Virgil. Wine is definitely a subject I stay quiet on when its being discussed as I don't know much about it :p.

    Just curious, why should wine be stored on its side?
     
  5. flipflopgirl

    flipflopgirl

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    Don't think you will get a reply from @Virgil  as his thread is over a year old (and he seems to be MIA) but that is ok.

    In case someone is ever seeking an answer to your ? they will find an answer waiting.....not that I am an expert or anything... fact checked my answer to make sure nothing has changed in the WOW (world of wine) before posting.

    Every wine that has a cork stopper should be stored so the fluid inside keeps the cork saturated.

    Why?

    A dry cork is much more apt to shrink thereby allowing oxygen to seep thru and cause oxidation (which is bad lol).

    Those bottles with plastic corks and screw tops are naturally excluded from this rule ;-)

    mimi
     
  6. sgsvirgil

    sgsvirgil

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    Wine bottles that have a cork are stored on their sides so that the wine itself will come in contact with the cork and prevent the cork from drying out.  Wines that have a screw on top, which is becoming more and more common, or wines that have artificial corks do not need to be stored on their sides. 

    When the cork is new, it will expand and completely seal the neck of the bottle preventing air from reaching the wine.  Wine and air share a love hate relationship.  Air causes wine to oxidize which turns the wine into vinegar.  However, a tiny bit of air over long stretches of time is what allows the wine to age.  A good cork will allow that tiny bit of air to pass through its pores and reach the wine over the years as long as the cork remains moist.  However, a dry cork will contract and not completely close off the neck of the bottle allowing air to freely pass and ruin the wine. This is why checking the cork by giving it a squeeze or two checks its elasticity.  The supple cork and the red or purple stain on the bottom will tell you the wine has most likely been stored properly.  

    However, as I said, there exceptions to just about every rule in the wine world.  One of the exceptions to the cork rule is white wine.  Because of its color, its often difficult to see any evidence the white wine has been in constant contact with the cork.  In that case, just give the cork a squeeze to make sure its soft and supple. 

    With red wines, checking the cork is more important when dealing with older wines.  In some instances, you can look at the bottle and actually see that the wine has crept up the side of the cork.  That is not necessarily a bad thing.  But, its also not necessarily a good thing.  Wine along the side of the cork can mean the cork was not properly fitted to the bottle or the wine spent too much time on one side.  This is one of the reasons why wine that is stored for long periods should be turned from time to time.  The other reason is to prevent its sediments from "settling," which is a whole other discussion.

    Generally speaking, the cork is not the most dependable method for telling if the wine is good or  bad.  Its merely a start.  I have had fantastic wines where the cork's characteristics weren't that great.  I've also had wines that could be considered acts of terrorism that had smooth, supple and well stained corks.  In general, give the cork its due attention, no more than a few seconds and move on to the wine itself.  After all, the wine is the star of the show, not the cork. 

    Cheers!
     
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2017
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  7. flipflopgirl

    flipflopgirl

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    ...and there you go....

    @SGSVirgil  did you change your name?

    mimi
     
  8. sgsvirgil

    sgsvirgil

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    Yep.  Long story.  But, the shorthand of it is I reformatted my computer because I got hacked.  I closed all emails accounts, bank accounts....you name it.  it took me a while a to remember all the websites that I had bookmarked.  So, when I tried to login here, of course I could not remember my user name and pw and I had a completely different email account.  So, I just made another one.  :)
     
  9. flipflopgirl

    flipflopgirl

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    Ouch.

    I just read a story re congress passing (or going to pass?) a bill making it easier for our internet providers to release (sell?) our info.

    Makes absolutely NO sense to me until I realized if passed the bill would make it easier to set precedent when the spies get caught with their hands in the cookie jars.

    Please tell me I am wrong and was either dreaming or it is just a fake news plant.

    mimi

    OBTW....great answer re the cork question.

    Thanks for taking the time.

    m.
     
  10. jimyra

    jimyra

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    I have one rule for wine.  If it tastes good to you drink it.
     
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  11. sgsvirgil

    sgsvirgil

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    Yeah.  I read that too.  Doesn't sound very good.   Thank you for the compliment, btw.   :)
     
    Last edited: Mar 26, 2017
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  12. sgsvirgil

    sgsvirgil

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    I could not agree more. 
     
  13. blackfish

    blackfish

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    Great, that explains it nicely. Interesting fact about why wines should be turned if being stored for long periods too, I'd heard that one but also didn't know why.

    Thanks for the replies despite this being an old thread :).
     
  14. cheflayne

    cheflayne

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    Not trying to be wise guy know it all, but I have always been taught that turning stored wine disturbs the process of settling. The sediment which settles on one side of the glass usually stays there. This makes decanting easier and you lose less wine during the decanting process. Also cloudiness in a red wine is usually caused by the sediment being disturbed. Wine seepage past the cork is a sign that the wine has been exposed to excess heat or light during storage.
     
  15. popbistro

    popbistro

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    @ Virgil, do you have personal recommendations for pairings? I do drink wine, but am not totally on board with general consensus pairings having to do with proteins.

    I personally think texture, sharpness and acidity are more important when pairing wine with food.

    Do you use a general rule for proteins or does cheese, brightness, smokiness make for a better pairing.

    Any insight would be appreciated.
    I am creating a menu for an often overlooked vineyard here in CA that many a great wine comes from that is south of Sonoma. I decided to concentrate on not so much the vessel, but the cheeses and bright flavors of fruits to create the menu.

    Any advice? We have amazing cheese here, but I do want the smokiness of pork and the sweet and tart of a honey crisp apple to complement the "whites".


    What is your go to for a Cabernet, or even a Pinot noir? Earthy mushrooms or?

    Thanks in advance. 🙃
     
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  16. sgsvirgil

    sgsvirgil

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    I am terribly sorry for not getting back to you as I have only just now returned to ChefTalk. My wife and I sold our restaurant last Spring and we have been traveling for the better part of the last year. There is a lot to be said for living the dream, but, I really think I need a vacation from my dream. lol

    Anyway, I 100% agree with your statement about texture, sharpness and acidity. For me, and this is what works for me - other people may have different philosophies - I tend to start with the basic rules i.e. tannin + tannin = bad, tannin + fat = good, and so on. I try (try, mind you) to never break those rules. However, if there is one area in the culinary world where rules are meant to be broken, its in the world of wine and food pairing.

    Pinot Noirs happen to be my favorites wines, mostly because they are notoriously hard to make because the grapes are very temperamental. Not to mention they have a flavor that is unique. I find that Pinots are very easy to pair up and there really aren't many foods that do not get along with Pinot Noir. I suppose my "go to" Pinot Noir would be something in the 13-13.5 ABV range, with good fruit characteristics with a just a touch of earthiness and mild to moderate tannin.

    As for Cabs, I'm not really a fan, but, if I had to pick some to pair up with a menu, I would have to focus on balance when it comes to Cabs. They tend to be a bit heavy on the back end, which is my way of saying their finish tends to outshine everything else. Like a good pinot, I would look for a cab around in the 13.5 ABV range, no more than 14% with good fruit, medium tannin (or heavier tannin depending on the fat content of the paired food), and medium acidity. These characteristics tend to have the greatest appeal over a broad range of pallets. "Bigger" Cabs are always a risk but, the greater the risk, the greater reward, right? Whenever I put together a tasting menu, pairing food with cabs was the one area where I deliberately chose to take risks with "bigger" cabs largely because cabs are well known to both professional tasters and amateurs alike.

    In the end, its all about personal preference. I think if you follow the simple rules of fat+tannin = good, acid+fat=good, tannin+tannin=bad and so on, you will never go wrong. I would love to be more specific, but, without any details in terms of your menu selections, I can't really go into further details. If you ever need any suggestions, please feel free to send me your menu and I will float some pairing suggestions with some great wines that are easy on the wallet or high end stuff.....whichever you prefer. ;-)

    But, in any case, I have obviously responded well after the fact, and therefore, any advice that I could offer would be purely academic. But, I would like to know how the event went and, if you can remember, what pairings worked and any that may not have worked, I would love to hear about them. :)

    Cheers.
     
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2018